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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2000 / 29 Kislev, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

'You weren't supposed to love me; that wasn't the program' -- THERE WAS a time when the news would have arrived by a note passed hand-to-hand in study hall. This week it came by e-mail instead. Same thing, when you think about it. The message was brief:

"C.W. died."

That's all it needed to say.

C.W. Jones was the principal of the high school in the town where I grew up. He was a man out of time -- a man raised with the values of one era who did his best to deal with the problems of a new era. He was a retired World War II Navy officer who was hired as the principal in our town after so-called juvenile delinquents, in the 1950s, were disrupting the peacefulness of the school. The parents wanted it stopped. C.W. stopped it.

He stayed at the high school for 22 years, all the way into the 1970s. We students didn't like his methods much; he told us what to do. It was a public school run in an almost military way. There were no committees, no counseling groups. There was C.W. If he didn't like the clothes you were wearing, if he didn't like the language you were using in the hallways, he threw you out. "Get out of here and go home with the rest of the babies." There was no appeals process. An American high school, the way C.W. Jones saw it, was not a democracy.

In our current world that sometimes seems to have no boundaries that can be counted on, in which every question is regarded as malleable and negotiable, the memory of C.W.'s way of doing things has a certain surprising strength now that is difficult to explain. As I grew older I began to understand that he had bestowed upon us a gift by running that school in the steady, no-nonsense manner that he did. What would you rather have for your children: C.W., or metal detectors?

The last time I spoke with him was last year, right after Columbine. The confusing, sometimes violent world in which students are expected to try to learn today. . . . I kept hearing C.W.'s voice: "Get out of here and go home with the rest of the babies." Could C.W.'s do-it-because-I-say-so way possibly work in today's complicated world?

I asked him who had given him the right, back then -- the right to decide, on his own, what was acceptable and what was unacceptable at the school.

"I don't know whether I had that right or not," he said. "I never asked anyone's permission -- I just ran the school. My theory was, you look like what you are. I want you looking like a student who can learn in a good environment. It wasn't just the students, you know -- the male teachers had to wear coats and ties every day, the women teachers had to wear dresses or skirts -- no pants. Teaching is a profession, and they were to look like professionals. I thought we had a better school that way."

Were the times different? Of course. Are the lessons applicable now? C.W. told me a story about his years as a school principal that, at first hearing, sounded anachronistic.

"One year the seniors thought it would be funny to put alarm clocks in their lockers, set to go off during different parts of every morning."

And how did he deal with that?

"I broke the clocks up. I had a key that would open every locker. I went into every locker and took out every alarm clock and stepped on them. Smashed them."

Did he have the right to do that?

"The lockers belonged to the board of education," C.W. said. "We let you students use them. One mother came to school and said to me, `You owe me money for that alarm clock you smashed.' I said: `Not me.' That was that."

Of his way of running a school, he said: "You can't do it without the backing of the parents in the community. You can only run a school that way if the community lets you know that's what it wants." Standing sentry at the front door every single morning was C.W., in a business suit, with his arms crossed. "I just wanted to see what we had here," he told me. "If I was responsible for the place, I wanted to see what we had here every morning."

He never got close to any of us. He knew full well that the students in the public school he tried to run with such decorum and such standards didn't love him.

"Love me?" he said the last time we talked. "No, I don't think that any of you loved me. You weren't supposed to. That wasn't the program."

Yet this week I keep hearing from people all around the country who went to that high school, who are just learning of his death (he was 91), and who are pausing to think about him.

Job well done, Mr. Jones -- although I think he knew that. He didn't need to hear it from the likes of us.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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